The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Monday, April 22, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Agatha Christie may have written the murder mystery, but PlayMakers Repertory Company brought it humor.

This month, the theatre performed a Ken Ludwig adaptation of the most popular of Agatha Christie’s tales, "Murder on the Orient Express." The play takes place on a train from Istanbul bound for London. But soon, disaster strikes when a snowstorm brings the express to a standstill. There, the passengers discover that a delayed train is the least of their problems.

With a luxurious 1930s aesthetic, set pieces that reconfigured and expanded and a skillful cast speaking in 10 different accents, I left the theater amused and delighted.

"Murder on the Orient Express" has been a novel, a movie, an episode in a PBS series and a widely performed play.

At this point, how could any production distinguish itself?

One answer is to create stage visuals that offer clues to the mystery. The first act starts with a lone rocking chair and a projection that makes the stage look like broken glass — an eerie but captivating sight. As a small child sings in the background, Poirot, the main protagonist and detective, faces outward and directly addresses the audience, who are given their first clue. The case about to be revealed is both the greatest and most difficult of the detective's career.

“It made me question the very deepest values that I have held since I was a young man,” Poirot tells the audience.

The plot is unfurled through Poirot’s memories, and here, he introduces the play's theme: the balance between justice and the law. He sparks spectators' curiosity — will this murder reveal more within humans than just blood?

Playmakers also brought new life to the show through set design and furniture reconfiguration. But it wasn't simple.

Using only a few pieces of wheeled furniture, the play’s director, Tracy Bersley, and her design team were able to reconfigure the Paul Green Theatre’s thrust stage into a hotel, station platform, dining car and even a sleeping compartment. Between scenes, actors would rearrange the fixtures, stretching and contracting the memories in Poirot’s mind.

Having a professional choreographer of movement as the director meant that during each scene transition, the audience witnessed abstract maneuvers that are often hidden behind a curtain. 

The third and most impressive addition to the story was its comedy, a feat achieved with silly behaviors and a hired vocal coach.

Although tripping over suitcases and stumbling through doorways wasn’t written into the script, certain actors, like Adam Valentine, who played Hector MacQueen, brought an improvisational touch to their movements, leaning into the caricatures of their roles. 

The actors developed various European and American dialects — ranging from Russian to New York Italian American — for their portrayals of characters, with varying degrees of success. 

While a few accents felt unnatural on stage, most of the accents not only remained intelligible, but managed to keep the audience laughing, even when the contrasting voices could have lead to confusion.

Julia Gibson’s comedic timing as Mrs. Hubbard was impeccable. Between keeping the train awake by dancing and performing opera in the middle of the night to flirting constantly with the oblivious train conductor, Mrs. Hubbard’s thick Minnes-ooo-ta accent kept the house cackling throughout.

The end of the play brings a stark shift of tone from campy banter to crude moral questioning — a testament to the cast’s versatility. The audience is forced to look at justice as something separate from objective truth. 

Patrons are left feeling tickled, serious and baffled, as it is nearly impossible to guess whodunit.


@dthlifestyle |

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.